Star Wars: Episode IX — The Rise of Skywalker

BLU-RAY REVIEW: 

Street Date 3/31/20;
Disney/Lucasfilm;
Sci-Fi;
Box Office $515.2 million;
$29.99 DVD, $39.99 Blu-ray, $39.99 UHD BD;
Rated ‘PG-13’ for sci-fi violence and action.
Stars Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Anthony Daniels, Naomi Ackie, Domhnall Gleeson, Richard E. Grant, Lupita Nyong’o, Keri Russell, Joonas Suotamo, Kelly Marie Tran, Ian McDiarmid, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Billy Dee Williams.

In the wake of divisive fan response to Disney’s approach to “Star Wars” since its purchase of Lucasfilm, the studio turned to J.J. Abrams to deliver a final chapter to the nine-episode trilogy of trilogies that has been dubbed “The Skywalker Saga.”

Watching Rise of Skywalker, however, it quickly becomes evident that the studio and the creative team in place to make these new “Star Wars” films had no firm plans in place for the overarching story they were trying to tell, let alone connecting them to the previous six chapters.

The resulting concluding chapter, while a fun, entertaining, grand-scale adventure filled with franchise references for fans to enjoy, still comes across as a bit of a disjointed mess, picking and choosing which story threads from the previous films to carry through (if not outright retconning them) as if on a whim, while introducing vast and sometimes bizarre new ones that don’t stand up to too much scrutiny (or, worse, require fans to turn to myriad tie-in books to explain it). While the “Star Wars” franchise has never been a stranger to these kinds of strained plot mechanics, the rumored behind-the-scenes troubles at Lucasfilm have made the seams of Rise of Skywalker especially noticeable, and the accompanying plot developments rather jarring.

So there are two ways to look at Rise of Skywalker — it’s fine for what it is, and there’s plenty to like in it, but it’s also a reminder of what could have been.

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Instead of flowing from the natural plot implications of the previous episode, The Last Jedi (which, contrary to the vocal complaints of a few haters, were abundant enough to fuel a decent third act, as evidenced by the earlier script drafts floating around the Internet), the new film decides to drop a plot nuke right at the beginning: Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) never really died and has been manipulating things the whole time. Leia’s Resistance, still recovering from the previous film, then turns its focus on fighting Palpatine, sending Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega), Poe (Oscar Isaac), Chewbacca, C-3PO and BB-8 on a mission to find a device containing the location of the Emperor’s hidden base. Meanwhile, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) wants to eliminate Rey in exchange for the Emperor’s powers. Be prepared for some big reveals.

While reintroducing the Emperor, who was the underlying threat for the first six movies, is as good enough a reveal as any for how the Empire returned in the guise of The First Order for these films, its sudden inclusion in the third film without any clues planted in the previous two just calls attention to the lack of planning. For example, a properly planned trilogy with Palpatine as the hidden villain wouldn’t have bothered to make Snoke an actual person in the second chapter when the hologram form he displayed in the first movie serves as the perfect cover, a la The Wizard of Oz.

There’s also the fact that the Emperor’s return smacks of similarity to storylines from the “expanded universe” of “Star Wars” books, comics and video games that the studio and Abrams had very publicly said were no longer canon. If the end result is just going to borrow ideas from them anyway, why not adapt them outright? The problem with trying to replace them with something new usually means that if whatever you replace them with isn’t better, fans aren’t going to be too happy.

The big wrinkle in the plan, of course, was the unfortunate death of Carrie Fisher after the filming of Last Jedi. With Leia poised to play a significant role in Episode IX, original story plans were scrapped, and a new screenplay was constructed to build scenes around unused footage of Fisher shot by Abrams for 2015’s The Force Awakens. The obvious limitations of this had a ripple effect on the rest of the story, while Abrams’ presence in the director’s chair was meant to assure fans that the saga was in good hands, given how much of a box office hit Force Awakens turned out to be.

Of course, the dirty little secret that many fans didn’t want to admit about The Force Awakens when it first came out was how, as a shallow remake of the original 1977 movie, it wasn’t a very meaty beginning for a new trilogy meant to continue the larger story. For all its faults, Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi at least tried to be about more than the sum of its parts, while re-framing the franchise for a new generation.

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Abrams’ return to Rise of Skywalker means the film, at the very least, benefits from his strengths of striking visuals and dynamic action. There are some great scenes in the film that will make fans smile, and truth be told, it’s a more enjoyable viewing experience than Force Awakens simply for being bold enough in its own right and not just wholly remaking an earlier film. However, when adding Rise of Skywalker to the context of Abrams’ whole career, it’s clear he talks a better game than he delivers.

This is readily on display in the two-hour The Skywalker Legacy behind-the-scenes documentary included with the film’s home video presentation. The program is a masterstroke in editing as it contrasts scenes being filmed for Rise of Skywalker with similar scenes from the original trilogy, complete with new and archival interviews with the same actors discussing their roles and the saga in general. It’s a fascinating piece filled with wonderful nostalgia, but also serves to highlight what a lesser copy these new films have been to those of the George Lucas era.

Speaking of which, for a film meant to conclude a nine-chapter saga, Abrams’ films are rather devoid of references to the prequels, despite where revisiting them would make more sense for the story. But, really, who can blame him for focusing almost all the screentime on the new characters he created for this new trilogy, since he was given the chance to do so? In Rise of Skywalker, Abrams even introduces a new little droid called D-O that looks like it was made from a desk lamp, which he himself voices as the droid comments on the scene going on, as if telling the audience how they’re supposed to feel about it (literally saying “sad” or “happy,” etc.).

In addition to the visual candy, the film’s most reliable highlight, as usual, is the score by John Williams, who does his level best to inject depth into the proceedings through his music. His efforts are the focus of an 11-minute digital exclusive featurette, but there’s also a segment about his work in the feature-length documentary. In his cameo as an alien bartender, Williams is surrounded by mementos of the first 51 of his Oscar-nominated scores. His 52nd nomination came via Rise of Skywalker itself.

The remaining extras are all behind-the-scenes featurettes, the best of which is “Warwick & Son,” a five-and-a-half-minute look at actor Warwick Davis’ previous roles in the franchise and how he was joined by his son for a cameo in Rise of Skywalker.

Other featurettes include a 14-minute look at filming a speeder chase, a six-minute video about creating an alien celebration in the deserts of Jordan, a five-and-a-half video about the creation of D-O, and an eight-minute look at the puppetry and makeup effects used to create the film’s creatures.

Vudu offers a couple of additional videos: a three-minute “Legacy” trailer and an eight-minute “End of the Saga” featurette.

It’s a bit disappointing that there were no deleted scenes included, given how much the filmmakers have been discussing in promotional interviews all that was cut from the film, but don’t be surprised if those and additional extras, like an audio commentary track, are one day included in an expanded home video release.

 

Batman: The Complete Animated Series — Deluxe Limited Edition

BLU-RAY REVIEW: 

Warner;
Animated;
$112.99 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Voices of Kevin Conroy, Efrem Zimbalist Jr., Bob Hastings, Robert Costanzo, Loren Lester, Mark Hamill, Arleen Sorkin.

The classic “Batman: The Animated Series” has never looked better thanks to a remastering that makes the series shine in high-definition. Although designed to be dark, the show nonetheless presents a dazzling array of color that gives new life to these heroes and villains of comic book legend.

This is an essential addition for any Batman fan’s collection.

The show was developed in the early 1990s to take advantage of the popularity of the Tim Burton “Batman” movies. While it shares some music and a darker edge, the show really stands on its own, and is considered by many to be the definitive on-screen adaptation of the character. About the only limitation it faced was that the network sensibilities for shows aimed at younger viewers at the time precluded how the show depicted violence, and restricted the depiction of blood and gun use.

The distinctive style is reminiscent of the Fleischer “Superman” shorts from the early 1940s, and itself spawned an animation franchise that came to include new “Superman” and “Justice League” cartoons, not to mention the cult-classic “Batman Beyond” reinterpretation of the character. (Thus far, the “Justice League” has been the only other DC Animated Universe series released on Blu-ray.)

The set includes 109 episodes from the series spanning four seasons, including the final 24 that were produced under the “New Batman Adventures” label with a modified design aesthetic. As a bonus, the set includes the theatrically released Batman: Mask of the Phantasm and the direct-to-video spinoff Batman & Mr. Freeze: SubZero (the discs are the previously released Blu-ray versions of each).

In addition to a bevy of legacy bonus content that includes audio commentaries and making-of featurettes from the previous DVD releases of the show, the new Blu-ray also comes with a bonus disc containing the new hour-and-a-half “Heart of Batman” retrospective documentary, in which the show’s creators and cast reflect on developing the series and the qualities that gave it such an enduring legacy.

Star Wars: Episode VIII — The Last Jedi

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Street 3/27/18;
Disney/Lucasfilm;
Sci-Fi;
Box Office $619.6 million;
$29.99 DVD, $39.99 Blu-ray, $39.99 UHD BD;
Rated ‘PG-13’ for sequences of sci-fi action and violence.
Stars Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Andy Serkis, Lupita Nyong’o, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Gwendoline Christie, Kelly Marie Tran, Laura Dern, Benicio del Toro.

Writer-director Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi is perhaps the most complex, thought-provoking “Star Wars” film to date in the way it asks its audience to reflect on their relationship with the franchise (a challenge many fans, it seems, were not up to). The result is a spectacularly entertaining film that deftly mixes thrills, nostalgia, emotion and humor.

The follow-up to 2015’s The Force Awakens, and the eighth of the numbered “Skywalker Saga” films in the “Star Wars” canon, answers some questions director J.J. Abrams left open in the previous film, while leaving more for Abrams to wrap up in the concluding chapter of this sequel trilogy that thus far represents the cornerstone of Disney’s cinematic plans for the franchise since acquiring Lucasfilm in 2012.

Picking up where Force Awakens left off, General Leia (the late Carrie Fisher, in her final film performance) and her Resistance fighters are on the run from the First Order, which is on the verge of seizing military control of the galaxy. Meanwhile, Jedi wannabe Rey (Daisy Ridley) has located the self-exiled Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), and works to convince him to join the fight, all while the villainous Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) hopes to turn her to his side.

Last Jedi is an improvement upon Force Awakens in many ways simply by not following so closely to the template of an earlier film (the 1977 original, in the case of Force Awakens), and not getting bogged down with trying to address every nagging plot thread from earlier films. (Seriously, to hear some fans tell it, they wouldn’t be satisfied unless Rey spent two hours sitting at a computer reading exposition about every new character from space-Wikipedia and narrating fan fiction.)

That isn’t to say the film pushes aside all tropes and familiarity. There are several plot points that echo previous installments, most notably Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, in keeping with the grand “Star Wars” tradition of intergalactic history playing out in cycles and new characters encountering situations similar to their predecessors, and having opportunities to make different choices. Indeed, Johnson at many points plays off the audience’s familiarity with these archetypes to purposely subvert their expectations, both for dramatic effect and as a bulwark against the franchise becoming stale. This is in many ways a film for the “Star Wars” fan who is willing to grow along with the franchise.

That’s not to say it’s a perfect film — some of the jokes and subplots have been criticized for straying too far from the formula. And certainly, the “Star Wars” films could benefit from a stricter storytelling structure that is rumored to be less of a priority at Lucasfilm than it is at fellow Disney company Marvel Studios. But for the most part, the film works exactly as it was intended to do.

Last Jedi is, at its core, a rumination on the nature of hero worship, and in forcing the characters to confront their preconceptions about the people and places they encounter, it also asks “Star Wars” fandom to make the same considerations. The film even gets meta at times, almost directly addressing the idea of obsessing over fan theories while also reminding us about the larger-than-life nature of the characters that made us want to experience their adventures in the first place.

The presentation offered by this absolutely loaded Blu-ray is a visual treat that preserves the big-screen splendor of the film’s gorgeous location photography and visual effects, including several scenes that are all-time franchise highlights.

The centerpiece of the extras is the 95-minute behind-the-scenes documentary The Director and the Jedi, an often-candid look at Johnson’s journey to bring the film to life, from the announcement of his involvement to the final photograph of the cast and crew.

For all that detractors may complain about their own vision for “Star Wars” not aligning with Disney’s, it’s clear that Johnson himself is a fan with a firm grasp of the franchise’s mythology.

There’s even more to learn in another 50-minutes of making-of featurettes, each dealing with specific scenes or concepts, such as an examination of the nature of the Force and looks at creating various battles. An especially fun one offers Andy Serkis’ on-set performance as Supreme Leader Snoke in his performance-capture suit before any of the character CGI is applied, and he’s just as menacing with little dots pasted to his face.

The Blu-ray also includes 14 deleted scenes running more than 24 minutes. While most of these are wise cuts (an extended chase sequence on the casino planet really tests one’s patience), many offer some fun moments of story and character.

Johnson provides an optional commentary on the deleted scenes, as well as for the film as a whole. It’s a solo commentary, and he and talks openly about recording it before the movie even hit theaters, which leads to some interesting passages where he ponders about how the audience will react to certain things, leaving viewers with their hindsight to fill in the rest. It’s an informative track, but also raises a few questions about just when these commentaries should be recorded.

For movies that even offer a home video commentary, they tend to be recorded just before the film’s theatrical release, likely due to scheduling concerns and possibly the idea that the filmmakers are better able to recollect certain details when it hasn’t been that long since the film wrapped. On the other hand, this might have been a good opportunity to get a few people involved with the production to record one after seeing the fan reaction and focusing it more on analysis and response. Perhaps taking such a tact is liable to raise more issues, and simply carrying on with the confidence of having created a good film is the more appropriate way to go, but it might have led to a damn interesting commentary track.

Speaking of damn interesting — and perhaps a bit of it’s about damn time — the digital version of the film offered through the Movies Anywhere service includes a score-only version of the film that puts composer John Williams’ excellent music front and center. The soundtrack version is available exclusively to Movies Anywhere accounts linked to an affiliated retailer where the film was purchased, or by redeeming the digital copy code included with the disc.

It’s a nice gesture that hopefully paves the way for music-only versions of the rest of the “Star Wars” films.

Mark Hamill Honored With Star on Hollywood Walk of Fame

“Star Wars” icon Mark Hamill was honored with the 2,630th star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame with a ceremony March 8 in front of the El Capitan Theatre in Los Angeles with special guests Harrison Ford, George Lucas, Billie Lourd, Kelly Marie Tran and R2-D2. Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment releases Star Wars: The Last Jedi digitally in HD and 4K Ultra HD and via Movies Anywhere March 13, and on Blu-ray, DVD and 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray March 27.